Like his neighbor and mentor Thomas Jefferson, James Madison’s personal fortune was tied up in his Shenandoah Valley plantation in Virginia, a property Madison called Montpelier. During Madison’s administration as president, foreign affairs occupied his attention to an extent which exceeded his predecessors, leading him to request and receive from Congress a declaration of war against England. Madison became the first president to run for re-election during wartime and the first to succeed in retaining the presidency under those circumstances, but it led to his attentions being consumed by the peace negotiations which brought the war to an end.
He was then distracted by the rebuilding of burned Washington DC. It all left him little time to devote to his plantation, which by war’s end had lost considerable value. James Madison went home to Montpelier a much less affluent man than he had been when he left. For the rest of his life, the losses mounted. The value of his crops – mostly tobacco – dropped each autumn and he faced taxes on his land and maintenance costs for his extensive holdings, which included up to one hundred slaves at one time. He also faced the poor management practices of his stepson who was tasked with the day-to-day operation of Montpelier.
Madison was forced to reach into his ever-shrinking pockets to pay for errors of judgment and the purchase of equipment that he personally believed unnecessary. A plainly dressed man all of his life, he also faced significant debts over the wardrobe and other items ordered by his somewhat more flamboyant wife, the internationally known Dolley Madison, who had very definite ideas of her station in life and was determined to meet them with style and acclaim.
Madison’s service as the second rector of the University of Virginia – Jefferson had been the first – saddled him with entertainment and other expenses which he was ill-equipped to incur, but obligated by his position to take on. About one year before his death he began selling his slaves to meet operating expenses, as he dealt with financial pressures which reduced him to despair. His health and his faith in the nation he helped to create were both failing by 1834 and he died, nearly destitute, the following year. His widow sold Montpelier in 1842, leasing half of the remaining slaves to the new owner, which provided her with a small income. By 1850 what remained of Montpelier was limited to the main house and its immediate grounds.